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14.6.06

A Convenient Misstep

David Roberts has a standard environmentalist take on the brouhaha surrounding a recent paper in Science purporting to show that postfire logging damaged the environment. The paper was inconvenient for the timber companies who would profit from increased sales of postfire timber, so they tried (via proxies in academia) to suppress it. Their tactics were crude and bullying, provoking the outrage of the environmental community.

The timber companies' misstep in trying to suppress the paper has proven to be mightily convenient for environmentalists. Environmentalists were able to shift the debate from the (modest at best) merits of the paper to an indignant defense of the integrity of the scientific process. The significance and reliability of the paper are inflated as it's elevated into a martyr. Science's peer reviewers become modern-day canon compilers.

The new debate is not about the impacts of postfire logging. It's about whether you trust the timber industry or the scientific establishment. Where you stand on the new question determines what you'll think about the old question. The trust debate is easier for environmentalists to win, because they can play on society's reverence for science and a clear example of overstepping by the timber companies.

This is not to say that the trust debate is necessarily a bad one to have. Indeed, any attempt by a general audience to discuss the merits of the issue will end up as partly an implicit trust debate, since for the most part we don't have direct access to any data.

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